Tuesday, September 1 2015

What is ancient philosophy?

Monday 21st September

An evening symposium, with Art and Mind

Ancient Greek philosophy – as pursued by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics and Sceptics – was almost entirely unlike modern philosophy today. If you were looking for successors to the ancient schools, you would find more continuity in the cloisters of monasteries or the consulting rooms of psychotherapists. Ancient philosophy was fundamentally a process of transformation, a kind of awakening to a deeper perception of reality. The philosophers, though differing in their outlooks, argued that gaining true knowledge of reality was premised on working first on your community and self. The wisdom they sought was received more than proven; was as much practical as theoretical. This makes a huge difference to how you conceive of issues from reason and mind, to love and creativity.

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Friday, August 28 2015

Heavens Above! Can we still follow Dante into paradise?

This article is published in the new issue of Third Way Magazine

In the 750th anniversary year of Dante's birth, does the medieval world-view of The Divine Comedy still have anything to teach us? Mark Vernon's planetary tour of the Italian poet's universe gives new signposts for modern readers.

Midway upon the journey of his life, Dante Alighieri, the poet of The Divine Comedy, watched his luck collapse. A politician in Florence with the ear of the Pope, his fortunes suddenly reversed and he was cast into exile and penury. His mind fell on his first love, the beautiful Beatrice. The yearning and loss inspired his great poem, a visionary journey powered by love that carries him through the three realms of the dead towards a beatific vision of God.

Many modern readers of his masterpiece feel quite at home in the Inferno and Purgatory. The fates and tortures, sorrows and hopes that fill these realms still feel related to our struggles today. That familiarity departs with the Paradise. The vast differences between the medieval and modern experience of life then become an apparently insuperable barrier.

C.S. Lewis described the gap in his study of the medieval imagination, The Discarded Image. He recognized that it represented a major problem for Christianity because so much Christian imagery and theology is grounded in the abandoned worldview. When Dante looked up to the stars, he perceived himself to be on the lower rungs of a ladder of being that rises to God. When modern eyes gaze into the heavens, it is as if we look out from an island of awareness into vast voids of emptiness. Science tells us it is populated by dead matter not living souls; blind mechanisms not celestial virtues.

Or is that right? Do we actually have more imaginative and metaphysical options than we might first presume? Can we look up with modern eyes and still detect Dante's brilliant vision?

Moon

Dante the pilgrim enters paradise and the first sphere of the Moon. According to the poem, he asks why the lunar surface has lighter and darker parts. Beatrice, who accompanies him, tells him that he must let go of the physical explanations he proposes. His task now is different: it is to learn to perceive by a spiritual light. So for we moderns, might entering the lunar domain be thought of metaphorically as coming to an awareness of how richly we project human perceptions onto the stars, so as to begin to let them go?

Take the interest in discovering extraterrestrial life. This enterprise has been energetically engaged for well over half a century without a single positive discovery. The last report I saw said that over 100,000 galaxies have now been scanned for the basic signatures of civilizations like ours without the faintest signal. So why does this long search lose none of its fascination and appeal?

Projection is one answer. I wonder whether the search for ET has much to do with the human need to feel we are not alone. You might say that the quest is indulged with sublunary assumptions, as if the only option for intelligent life is carbon-based consciousness like our own. But that preoccupation excludes spiritual possibilities. What might they be? Dante asks that too, as he journeys into the next sphere, Venus.

Venus

Here, he begins to be able to discern, and bear, intensely beautiful images of spiritual reality. For a modern mind, reflecting on the role that beauty plays in scientific discovery might help us to journey this next step with him. Put it like this: mathematicians seek elegant solutions; physicists symmetries; biologists patterns. Scientists do so because such beautiful formulations are scientifically productive. But are they metaphysically revealing too?

In fact, the mathematician and former President of the Royal Society, Michael Atiyah, has noticed that modern scientists are perhaps unwittingly rejecting beauty as a handmaid of discovery by their adoption of algebra as a mathematical tool, in conjunction with computers. The upshot is that geometry, with its intuitive methods based upon principles of beauty - pattern, symmetry, balance - is falling into disuse. In a lecture, "Mathematics in the Twentieth Century", delivered in 2000, he argued that this move is something of a Faustian pact. "The devil says: 'I will give you this powerful machine, and it will answer any question you like. All you need to do is give me your soul.'" But without soul - without beauty - science is limited to what the machine can manipulate. It leaves scientists blind to what calculations cannot conceive.

You could say that Atiyah senses that science needs Venus and the stimulus of beauty, and that her inspiration is at risk of being eclipsed.

Sun

Dante's next step in paradise is into the sphere of the Sun. He is now fully awake to the limitations of human understanding; he has embraced the wonder of being confronted by irresolvable mystery. For the modern mind, a similar point of realization can be reached: the knowledge gained through the powerful methods of modern science comes to be recognized as indicative of a richness that lies beyond description, and which is even more extraordinary.

Dante meets Thomas Aquinas in the Sun. There is a well known story about Aquinas, which Dante presumably knew. On the morning of St Nicolas's Day, 1273, Aquinas had a vision. He concluded that all he had written was as much straw - meaning not meaningless but basic compared with the "wisdom so profound none of His creatures can ever hope to see into Its depths," as Dante has Aquinas say in Paradise. The human efforts of the Angelic Doctor could now stop. He would rest in the fecundity of spiritual silence, which paradoxically he could appreciate all the more because of his hard-won knowledge. He had adopted a solar mind.

Another past President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, has written of a parallel experience. He confesses an agnosticism of the type that is profoundly aware of the limitations of the human mind. He argues that scientific endeavours have barely understood the workings of the hydrogen atom, one of the simplest structures in the cosmos. It seems presumptuous to propose that we will one day arrive at a theory of everything, and so know the mind of God, to recall the phrase of Stephen Hawking. You might say that Rees is a scientist who enjoys the radiance of the Sun - the wonderment that dazzles at the fine edges of rational and empirical discovery. We can join him and Aquinas too.

Mars

Love presses on, and Dante next moves towards Mars. Here, he meets one of his ancestors and, in that meeting, his relationship to the great flow of life. It's the next gift offered by paradise.

I sense we might be welcomed here by Paul Davies, a cosmologist who countenances a possibility that is generally taboo in modern science, namely that the cosmos might have a telos, a directionality, an end. Davies is the author of several bestselling science books, including The Goldilocks Enigma, in which he examines the seeming rightness of the universe for the emergence of self-conscious life. He speculates that the cosmos may contain a drive for life, for self-consciousness, and even for qualities such as love. Though it's taboo to raise such possibilities, this "life principle" is a plausible hypothesis, he writes. It's a breathtaking thought when set alongside the vastness of the universe's unfolding: at least 13.8 billion years in time and 90 billion light years in space that is permeated by this gentle, unfailing pull.

To put it another way, a cosmic life principle presents us with our own relationship to the great flow of life. Further, it lifts us out of any humdrum experience of life and affords us a glimpse of the mystery of life and death. And more: is not to see one's own life as a reflection of an instinct for awareness that pulses through the cosmos, to die a little to self? Is it not to feel one's existence within a wider whole, flaming forth from an animating principle, the divine Word? It's what Dante realizes too as he is blessed by Mars.

Jupiter

Can we make the next move towards Jupiter, the realm of order, justice and serenity? Each of the souls Dante sees here has a place, rejoices in her place, and works harmoniously alongside all others. Interestingly, it is also the domain in which no one speaks to the pilgrim.

In relation to modern cosmology, a parallel experience might be to receive an intuition of the ineffable lawfulness of the universe. Under the white light of Jupiter, the laws of nature that science can articulate come to be known as echoes of a higher, harmonious order.

Albert Einstein smiles at us in this realm. On Earth, he had professed the type of pantheism advocated by Spinoza. It identifies God with nature but, unlike reductive forms of pantheism, does not forget the dependency of nature upon God: God is not another being but the Being of nature itself.

This theological carefulness sprang from his intellectual humility, his "veneration for a force beyond anything that we can comprehend." My conceit is that his terrestrial humility secures him a place in Jupiter's celestial domain because it ensures that his genius served a greater worship of the cosmic mystery. He spoke of "a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds." He knew nature as a wonderful phenomenon shaped according to lawful patterns and coordinated movements. You could say he loved "Jove's justice", to echo the words that appear to Dante in this sphere.

Saturn

There is a contemplation that is another step on, in Saturn. Dante now sees a ladder that can lift the soul out of the heavenly spheres altogether, and so closer still to God. Even music and Beatrice's loving smile, Dante realizes, are imprints of a lower beauty from which he must become detached if he is to continue. He must prepare himself to rise on a metaphysics that acknowledges a world of pure spirit that is radically independent of the material world. It's a form of Platonism, and one shared by the Oxford physicist who taught Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose.

For Penrose, Platonism provides the best description of why the human mind can do science at all. There must be a link between a metaphysical reality and physical reality, and it is made through the intelligence we know as mind. Though Penrose publicly remains neutral about the existence of God, I think he can be thought of as a fellow traveller with Peter Damian, the medieval contemplative whom Dante meets in Saturn. Damian's words to the poet capture the tremendous dynamic inherent in Platonic insight: "A ray of God's light focuses on me and penetrates the light enwombing me, whose force once joined to that of my own sight, lifts me above myself until I see the Primal Source..."

The metaphor of a ray of light carries a striking additional resonance too. I once spoke with Penrose about the nature of light. He told me that, according to the theories of relativity, light does not exist in time. That is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light, and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. Time would have to slow to a halt, requiring an infinite amount of energy - a lift to eternity, you might say, given that eternity is the world of timelessness. And then Penrose added a personal thought.

He described arriving at his office in the morning and turning on the lights. The room floods with photons, cascading sparks of timeless brightness. "It's like being bathed in eternity," he murmured, almost to himself. It seemed to me that this everyday act, transformed by a deep cosmological mystery, was simultaneously akin to a mystical experience, momentarily lifting him out of time altogether. Surely it is to glimpse high into the divine heavens.

Moon, Venus, Sun. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. In the poem, Dante continues, journeying on. But perhaps that's enough to suggest there are ways of reclaiming, and inhabiting, Dante's "discarded image".

 

Sunday, August 16 2015

Why The Soul Loves The Sea

A Sunday Sermon as posted at The Idler Academy.

We love to go on holiday to the sea. The turquoise lure of a sunny ocean has determined eight out of ten holiday destinations this year, I read. So why do millions cram on coasts and islands during these warm weeks? Fun, for sure. But I suspect the sea delivers something the soul loves too.

First, it makes us feel at home, more comfortable with ourselves. Individuals do things beside the seaside that they'd never do elsewhere. They strip off, build sandcastles, idle for hours during the middle of the day. Perhaps it has to do with the remarkable fact that we share the same percentage of salt in our blood as exists in the sea. 'We are tied to the ocean,' was how John F Kennedy put it: 'And when we go back to the sea, we are going back from whence we came.' The sea rocks us in its cradle as we float buoyant on salty waves. And it is also our evolutionary cradle. Perhaps our cells remember that deep history when we catch sight of the surf and surge, and our souls feel they have returned home.

But if the sea brings comfort, it also - secondly - sparks fear. It's 'dragon-green' and 'serpent-haunted', according to poet James Elroy Flecker. We pray for those in peril on the sea. There's the threatening power of the wind and waves, of course. And too, the sea is a powerful metaphor for the unconscious parts of ourselves, that domain of impulses, dreads and dark forms of which we're mostly unaware. The undulating, choppy surface becomes an interface between what is seen and what's unknown inside us. The sea is a reminder of what lies hidden beneath the turbulence of everyday distractions and concerns.

Playing with that fear is a standard device in movies. Think of Jaws, 40 years old this year. Part of the director's genius was to present us with a shark's-eye view by filming much of the action from under the surface. Sitting in a dark cinema watching the white foam and red churn was to come close to the monsters that can spring from the unconscious, the menace of the indefinite.

Better then to contemplate the sea from dry sand and firm land. From this vantage, the sea becomes restorative by nurturing a safer meditation. In stiller parts of the beach, or strolling alongside the water in the evening light, you will catch sight of holiday-makers gazing across the waves. They fall silent. They stand for a moment. It's as if they become aware and accepting of the darker forces in life.

And there's perhaps a third dynamic the sea evokes too. Alongside feeling it's akin, and knowing it's strange, the sea speaks of promise. Think of the metaphors inspired by sparkling waters. It prompts longings for 'near horizons' and 'distant shores'. It leaves us feeling 'wide open' or in touch with a 'vast emptiness'. The cobalt blue, or grey-green, or wild indigo convey a timeless eternity. 'The sea is as close as we come to another world,' remarked poet, Anne Stevenson.

It's to experience the sea's transcendence. It's to be reminded that our own world is often too small for us. If we can risk being all at sea - if we find a taste for its adventure and escape - we might discover the more that it offers. 'Time in the sea eats its tail,' wrote Ted Hughes. When the philosopher Plotinus saw the sea, he advised his followers to 'close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all.' The sea can shape the imagination as surely as it smooths the pebbles on the beach. See what you can see by the sea!

Image: Mainland Greece and Albania seen from Corfu, Bogdan Giuşcă

 

Wednesday, August 5 2015

The Soul of the Marionette

This review of The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray is published in Third Way Magazine.

The philosopher and historian of ideas, John Gray, is the type of atheist Christians can read with profit. Unlike many contemporary atheists who write about the human condition, Gray is under no delusion that humanity can do well or better without God. His exposé of the human propensity to violence, illusion, narcissism and misplaced optimism is relentless. He conveys a sense of life that is as bleak as Good Friday. His most recent books, including The Soul of the Marionette, can be read as a kind of emptying spiritual meditation. Accounts of individual paranoia, cannibalistic civilisations, and human folly take the sensitive reader to the despair of Jesus crying from the cross of God's desertion. For Gray, this wretched, blind, vulnerable state of being is not the exception but the rule. He offers a reminder of why believers believe: they feel death's presence too.

He is interesting to read as well. His awareness of lesser known novelists and thinkers is impressive. For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume is often cited for his attack on theism. The human mind does not really know the causes of things even when seemingly proven, he argued, be those causes presumed mechanical or providential. There is an unbridgeable gap between what we perceive and what happens. But I, for one, had not heard of Hume's contemporary, the clergyman Joseph Glanvill. Glanvill took such radical scepticism seriously too but, instead of turning it against religion and science, deployed it in favour of religion. The ways of God in nature are not our ways, he felt Christianity affirms. Providence is unsearchable; we can never know. But that humility is precisely the wisdom born of faith.

In fact, Gray often shows more sympathy for theism than atheism. He argues that, at their best, religions such as Christianity recognise that humanity faces problems that, of itself, it cannot surmount. Conversely, modern secularism is built on myths of anthropocentric progress. Science and politics alike sell us faith in reason or technology as ways out of human ills and evil.

Actually, it seems to me that Christians today are at risk of buying into such myths too. Church authorities confuse God's mission in the world with a plan for their church designed to halt numerical decline. Or they feel that Christianity requires them to seek global solutions to intractable issues such as immigration or poverty. The Christian task is at once much simpler and more demanding: it is to show compassion to those who are cursed by political, social and religious systems. That's harder than nurturing fantasies such problems can be solved - the whole of history shows they can't - because it leads in one direction: to the cross.

Gray can critique Christianity too. He is clear about the damage and suffering followers of Jesus have inflicted on others when they mistakenly assume confessing their creed equals knowledge of truth, a truth that must then be forced on others. In particular, the universal claims of Christianity have been a licence for universal savagery, Gray writes, citing Giacomo Leopardi. This intolerance, which amongst Christian leaders today tends to be limited to homophobia or misogyny presumably because they no longer command armies, has transferred to secular leaders. They bomb from drones or practice secret torture in the name of spreading universal freedom. (If you think that's a bit hard on presidents and prime ministers, Gray helpfully reminds us that around a quarter of the world's prisoners are held in America and that the state of Louisiana imprisons more of its population per capita than any other country on the planet.)

And yet, Gray can at times adopt a dogmatic tone himself. One small example that I notice: he regularly misrepresents the figure of Socrates, arguing in this book that the ancient Greek philosopher never doubted that the world was rational. I find this bemusing: Socrates turned reason against itself to expose its stress points and limitations. How else can you explain why so many of Plato's dialogues end inconclusively? His message is not, try harder; but rather, no matter how hard you try, reason will not lead you to the good life. Socrates is, to my mind, a friend of Gray, not an enemy.

Christians otherwise sympathetic to him will also feel that, at times, Gray misunderstands faith. For example, I would argue that the theistic impulse is not for freedom from choice, as he proposes in one passage. Rather, phrases expressing "God's service as perfect freedom" refer to the liberation of choosing to discern God's spirit rather than following one's own. True freedom is a question of attention rather than will.

Similarly, I suspect he is not quite right when he presents mystical traditions as taking freedom to be an inner condition in which normal anxious consciousness has been transcended. Rather, it's a condition in which normal consciousness has become aware of another consciousness that is "closer to me than I am to myself", to paraphrase Saint Augustine. That awareness slowly transforms to the point at which the individual lives out of this other life, known as God. It's the unexpected new life on the other side of dying to oneself that presents itself on Easter Sunday.

But then that is the difference between nihilism and theism. Gray's view is strictly tragic: it's best hope is a negative capability, following Keats, that does not cling to false certainties. Christianity is ultimately a divine comedy, in the ancient sense used of Dante's epic poem: though we must travel through hell, that is the way to heaven. It is often hard to distinguish between that hope and Gray's dark vision.

 

Thursday, July 30 2015

Eros and wisdom: some recent radio

A couple of recent BBC radio 4 programmes that might be of interest:

What Is Eros? Exploring Freud and Plato on our yearnings.

Start the Week. Talking about ancient philosophy and Alan Watts, with Tim Lott and others.

 

Sunday, July 19 2015

Socrates, tragedy, and the Greek crisis

This short essay was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme this morning.

The ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights - figures like Socrates and Plato, Euripides and Sophocles - can be thought of as prophets. Like the Hebrew prophets of the Bible, they were passionate critics of what was going on in their day. So how might they comment upon the European Greek crisis today?

I think with a cry of anger, despair, and lament. Think of Euripides' play, Trojan Women. It portrays the fate of the women of Troy after their terrible defeat in the Trojan war. Euripides has Hecuba cry: "What else but tears is now my hapless lot. What woe must I suppress? I must chant a cheerless dirge of sorrow."

I can imagine a modern day Euripides traveling to the site of Plato's Academy, where I was last month. It's now a suburban park, a half hour bus ride from the main Athenian attractions of the acropolis and agora. I sought it out seeking a moment amongst the stones to connect back. I was feeling idealistic, hopeful, romantic.

I hadn't banked on the park being a makeshift boarding house for the homeless. I found my stones amidst the acanthus plants, but alongside them were human figures curled up in stained sleeping bags. The denser patches of shrubbery had become toilets.

It seemed to me that what Euripides had written of the Trojan women could be said of these modern-day defeated women and men: What woe must they suppress? What tears do they cry? What cheerless dirge expresses their sorrow?

Alongside the ancient playwrights, the ancient philosophers strove to find words of critique and pain too. They were inspired by Socrates, the man whom the rulers of ancient Athens had executed. His questioning and example had proven too much.

Today, Socrates could repeat almost the same set of questions he asked then. What vision of the good life are you politicians really offering? Whom are you serving in your lawmaking? What kind of society are you creating for your citizens?

A key issue the philosophers highlighted was the nature of money and debt. Money is fine, they observed, when it serves people and life. But beware: it has a life of its own. They were as wary of debt as the Hebrew prophets were of usury. Money quickly turns from being a servant to a tyrant; from being of service to demanding it be served. Then, it destroys opportunities, goods, life.

What monster has been created, Socrates might ask now? You talk of justice, Aristotle might add, and fail to see that justice needs friendship to stay human. Without goodwill, it too becomes a tyrant.

The playwrights and philosophers had a tragic view of life. Plato's shade, lurking in the park of his old Academy, would not be surprised by the homeless sleepers. But ancient tragedy also contained hope. Euripides and others wrote about the suffering of their times to remember and honour those who suffer. Their art - their prophecy - gave the suffering dignity and a voice.

Plato offered something else. He knew that whatever happens to the body, the eye of the soul can be kept open and bright. Though terrible things will happen, human beings need never lose sight of what's good, beautiful, and true.

It's a truth central to Christianity too. The tragic figure of the crucified Jesus, the prophet who warned money will become your god, also knew of the light that shines in the vastness of the darkness. It cannot be extinguished. The Greeks have known this truth for millennia. I hope they know it now.

 

Friday, July 10 2015

Rupert Sheldrake in discussion: What the Greeks can teach us

We've published the latest discussion between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

We explore how the ideas and way of life of the Stoics, Platonists and others can help us today bridge supposed divides between science and spirituality. We also look at how Christianity adopted and developed older perceptions of reality and what this means for modern therapies and insights.

Our conversation is prompted by the publication of my new book, The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy.

 

Sunday, June 28 2015

Order now: The Idler Guide To Ancient Philosophy

My new book, published by Idler Books, will be available from July 2015. Here's an excerpt from the opening chapter…

Our story begins a long time ago in a universe that, psychologically speaking, is pretty far away. It is the age of Homer – of warriors and heroes, gods and monsters. Oral means of communication were the norm, not writing: thoughts were written on the heart before they were transferred to the page. An individual in those times – the undifferentiated years of the tenth, ninth, eighth centuries BC – might have looked at the red sky, the black sea or the green land (ancient Greeks had no word for blue) and felt a flood of meaning washing from the hills and waves. The experience was unlike a modern mentality in which we spontaneously turn inside seeking insight in introspection.

There was, as yet, no clear distinction between inside and outside yourself. Human beings were porous, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has put it. Hence, if you read Homer, you find that his heroes have crises but unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they do not stand on an empty stage and reflect via soliloquy. ‘To be or not to be…’ Such deliberation requires a sense of self that is individual, separate, facing its own unique clusters of pain. Rather, in Homer, a miasma rises up, the scene cuts to gods arguing on Olympus, and the characters of Achilles or Hecuba are played like chess pieces in the game called fate. They have what the philologist Owen Barfield called participatory consciousness. We are therefore I am, not I think therefore I am. Things began to shift in the first stirrings of what we now call philosophy. The presocratic philosophers were those individuals who began to ask the kind of questions that cause a certain distance to open between the individual and the world in which they had felt immersed. They began to create a mentality that feels more familiar to us, one that planted the seeds of the modern. We know one of those queries left by Anaxamines of Miletus, one of the earliest philosophers of the sixth century. He thought to blow on his hand in two ways. First, with his mouth wide open. Then, with his lips pursed. He noticed a difference. Try it.

When blowing with his mouth wide open, the air felt warm. With his lips pursed, it felt cold on his hand. And then he thought to ask why?

That small question represents a massive leap of mind. It wonders if the difference might have a physical reason, a proto-scientific explanation. We now describe the effect as a result of Boyle’s law. The air from pursed lips feels cooler because it undergoes a rapid expansion as it leaves your mouth. That takes energy, so the temperature drops. The air from an open mouth undergoes no change of pressure, and so emerges still warm, at body temperature.

But there is something more subtle going on in Anaxamines’ ‘why’ too. The effect of asking is to distance you from the experience itself. Part of you has the experience of warm and cool air hitting your palm. But now, another part of you takes an inner step back and reflects on the experience. That inner shift is symptomatic of the new way of engaging with life that was emerging at the time of the presocratics. It is that change of consciousness they can be said to have helped crystalize. It is as if alongside life known as a series of fateful events, a deeper truth may be found by turning inwards and reflecting. Introspection had begun.

It carries benefits and costs. One big benefit is that sciences can get going. The presocratics are remembered for coming up with questions we still ask, such as what the world is made of, can I predict whether it will rain tomorrow, do living organisms evolve? Their answers, like ours, also made them more capable of manipulating the world. The change put power in their hands. Another early philosopher, Thales also of Miletus, was such an astute observer of nature that he was able to forecast that next summer would be particularly good for olives. His new science gave him the confidence to buy the rights to license olive presses. Next summer came and he made a killing, because he was correct. Everyone had to pay him a small tax to capitalise on the bumper crop.

But there is a cost of prioritising this more analytical, manipulative form of consciousness over a participatory one, too. It is separation. Hence, Barfield labeled this new phase of life, alienated. I now have the sense that there is a distance between myself and the world, one that feels difficult to bridge because I regard myself as an isolated subject, an ‘I’, in a universe of objects, or things. The shift from an oral to a written culture has a similar effect. Put words on a page, and you cause the illusion that they have an abstract, virtual existence; no longer living in the heart but on the page. What they describe need not be intimately tied to our experience. Hence we know Hamlet as an artifice, a fiction. Homer’s hearers must have felt his heroes existed, in some archetypal way. Similarly, we no longer live with the supposition of oral cultures who see words in the landscape, aboriginal meanings in the stars and clouds. Hereon, philosophy runs the risk of seeming to conquer all mysteries ‘by rule and line’, to recall Keats’ lament for those lost times.

The effects of these changes in the presocratic era have evolved over the centuries, responding to socio-economic as well as ideological developments. For example, whilst Thales thought to capitalise on his new knowledge, it was not until the early modern period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that science and technology became the raison d’être of entire societies, in the industrial revolutions. Alternatively, it was the conditions of the nineteenth century that generated a new kind of human being, the atheist, who concluded there was a fundamental gulf between the worldview known as scientific and that known as religious. An ancient philosopher, upon making a discovery, would have thought it entirely sensible and appropriate to offer a sacrifice in the local temple. ‘Everything is full of gods,’ Thales the meteorologist also delighted in declaring. None of the ancient philosophers felt it necessary to ask whether there was a meaning to life either. If anything, they struggled because life was too full of meaning. They did not adopt the assumption that disconnected introspection alone must adjudication on purpose and fulfillment. That took the emergence of an ideal of self-sufficient, self-determining, autonomous individuality. Ancient philosophers, like most humans in history, argued that asking where you are is as valuable a question as asking who you are: they followed the injunction to know thyself rather than the more modern need to make something of oneself.

But nonetheless, the assumptions that shape us now find an early reflection in the surviving fragments of works by individuals like Anaxamines and Thales. Unlike Homer, who always comes across as a bit dreamy and mythological, their inquiries feel familiar. Their take on life is striking because, though two and a half thousand years old, it feels related to our own.

 

Friday, June 19 2015

"Listen, I tell you a mystery!"

Eleusis is off the beaten track when it comes to following in the footsteps of Paul. This is, in part, good. First, its temples, porticos and ceremonial ways are not filled with other visitors. Second, the silence of the fallen marble still speaks of how it was a thin place, somewhere that countless individuals received insight and consolation in the face of the great issues of life and death. I recommend a visit.

It's the home of the Eleusinian Mysteries and, because of its tremendous influence particularly in Roman times, is really as much a part of Christian history and experience as Paul's teaching on the second coming in Thessalonica or the centrality of love in Corinth. We speak of baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments and mysteries. We take communion, engage rites of initiation, prepare ourselves to receive God with fasting, sacred meals, festivities, pilgrimages, liturgies. They transform lives and deliver the kind of knowledge that can't be read on a page. Such elements have many sources, but the link to the ancient mysteries is thoroughly in the mix.

It's worth saying a word about the word "mystery" because it can be mystifying. This is a shame as it is a simple idea of which everyone has experience. The word comes from the Greek verb for "to close" (hence, myopic). Recipients of mysteries closed their eyes - that is, they were shown things that eyes alone can't see. To put it another way, a mystery is a direct experience of truth. It's unmediated by words, objects or rites - although words, objects and rites are the vehicles that carry the individual to the moment when the direct experience shows itself.

The journey of Holy Week, particularly through the Triduum or Three Days, is a good example (and is another link with Eleusis, since the ancient mysteries involved a journey of several days to and from Athens). The liturgies on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday carry the congregation to the bleak heart of the emptiness of death, and then, through Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, to an experience of the mystery and joy of resurrection. The Easter Vigil in the early hours of the morning on Easter Sunday offers a direct sense of the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not comprehend.

It seems highly likely that Paul utilizes the language of the mysteries too, not least in his letters to the Corinthians. They lived within easy reach of Eleusis and would have recognised links when he wrote things like, "Listen, I tell you a mystery!" Or, "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies" - because the Eleusinian mysteries were deeply linked to growth and the seasons. Or again when he cited Isaiah, "Death has been swallowed up in victory" - because the mysteries involved a swallowing up in the earth before a release into a new, richer life.

Personally, I think that there may even be a direct link to Paul. One of his named converts in Athens is Dionysius the Areopagite. The name was to have an enormous impact upon subsequent theology when, in the late 5th century AD, a Christian Neoplatonic philosopher adopted it. Under Dionysius's name, he wrote works including Divine Names, Mystical Theology and Celestial Hierarchy, now referred to as authored by Pseudo-Dionysius or Pseudo-Denys. They could claim to be some of the most influential books in Christianity. And perhaps the original Dionysius was an Eleusinian initiate before he was a Christian. Perhaps this is why he was open to Paul's teaching on resurrection when Paul arrived in Athens. And perhaps Dionysius began a school of mysticism within Christianity that came to fruition in the 5th century texts.

The former dean of St Paul's cathedral, William Ralph Inge - Dean Inge, wrote an accessible book on mysticism, Christian Mysticism (it's widely available online). He offers a useful summary of what happened at Eleusis in an appendix, and why it matters to Christians. He concludes: "It is plain that this is one of the cases in which Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing from it all its best elements; and I do not see a Christian need feel any reluctance to make this admission." Personally, I think that this adoption of the practice and theology of the mysteries is crucial to knowing the life in all its fullness that Jesus lived and taught, and Paul so profoundly experienced and knew.

 

Thursday, June 18 2015

Paul before the philosophers

What would the Stoics and Epicureans have made of Paul's famous speech on the Areopagus in Athens, the capital city we've now arrived at on the pilgrimage? Let's take the words Luke puts into Paul's mouth in Acts 17 at face value, and consider them point by point. Once more, we see Paul being canny: don't alienate your audience unnecessarily; indeed, reach out to them as far as you can.

I found an altar to an unknown god. (v23)

The altar to the unknown god has not yet been found, in spite of the best efforts of well-funded archeologists. But altars to "unknown gods" are well attested by ancient sources, so Paul has picked an arresting starting point.

Further, the philosophers would broadly have agreed with Paul on the plethora of idols that littered the agora. The Epicureans believed in gods. In fact, some Epicureans thought that Epicurus was a god and remembered him on his birthday. But they were entirely against what they took to be the superstition that characterised much city-state religiosity. Leave the gods alone as they leave us alone, they tended to say.

Stoics were different. They were actively theistic. "We are children of Zeus," Epictetus the Stoic wrote about the same time as Luke. "Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within," he continues. The Stoics are with Paul, ready to hear more.

The God who made the world... gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (v24-25)

Now, though, any self-respecting Epicurean would have scoffed. They believed that life is merely the fortunate assembly of atoms. It requires no intervention from outside. There is no god who made the world.

The Stoics, though, would have listened on. God, through the operation of the Logos, generates and sustains all things, they taught. As Seneca, the near contemporary of Paul, explained: "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you... a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian."

He allotted the times of their existence... he is not far from each one of us. (v26-27)

This line would have interested the Stoics some more. They were strict determinists. Everything happened according to the divine will and purpose. Plus, they sought to know this will within their lives. Seneca again: "God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men." In fact, Paul's claim that God is "not far from each one of us" reads like a direct appeal to Stoic ears.

Which would explain why he next quotes two philosophers who were authorities for the Stoics (and not the Epicureans): "In him we live and move and have our being" (Epimenides). "For we too are his offspring" (Aratus). So what will he say next?

Now he commands all people everywhere to repent... v30

Having wooed them Paul, ever the rhetorician, choses this moment to turn up the heat. The themes of repentance and judgment are simply less comfortable personally, though not philosophically. Stoics practiced repentance (the Greek is metanoia - change of heart and mind). Here's Seneca on why it's necessary: "Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat." Repentance can lead the individual back to God.

On the other hand, Stoic adepts, such as might have been in Paul's audience, could well have been affronted by his audacity. OK, Paul comes from Tarsus, no mean Hellenistic city. But Tarsus is no Athens, they might have thought. Repentance for us? What will this man suggest next?

He will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed... v31

Again, judgment per se would have been tolerable to the Stoics. The philosopher Plutarch was writing about the same time as Luke. He's a Platonist, though I think that by the first century AD, Stoicism and Platonism often intermingled. Plutarch writes: "If the soul survives, we must expect that its due in honour and in punishment is awarded after death rather than before." Judgment, therefore, is OK. The tricky element for the Stoics would have been the notion of a man being appointed to judge. This Judge is presumably what they took to be Paul's "foreign deity" (v18).

By raising him from the dead. v31

Now Paul comes to the crux issue: resurrection. For, the Epicureans it was simply impossible. There is no postmortem survival, Epicurus had been explicit.

For the Stoics, resurrection was tricky but... Officially, they believed that when we die the fire of life leaves the body with the last breath. That fire is not lost: it returns to the cosmos from whence it came. Then there are the Platonic additions, and an active contemplation of the immortality of the soul.

Both these visions of postmortem existence are different from personal survival and, even more, from the reconstitution of a body. But, having brought them this far, I think Paul is inviting his Stoic listeners to reconsider and be challenged. After all, it's striking that he preaches the resurrection to the philosophers and not the cross, the thing that elsewhere he remarks is a stumbling block.

And some wanted to hear more of this ingenious man who was clearly passionate, confident and well-educated. We can take it that the Epicureans were the ones who scoffed, and the Stoics were the ones who wanted to hear Paul again (v34). There are also two named converts, Dionysius and Damaris, along with unnamed others. It was a good day for Paul at the Areopagus. He had made his mark in Athens.

Image: Areopagus from the Acropolis, Athens

 

Tuesday, June 16 2015

Icons, Plato and Paul - or the path to seeing clearly

I'm helping lead a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Paul in Greece. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Today we've been in and around the Metéora monasteries looking at icons...

Plato is not dead, I was once emphatically told. Go into any Greek Orthodox church. Icons are Platonism made manifest!

We've seen many astonishing icons on day five of the pilgrimage, in the thriving Metéora monasteries and their churches. But why are they Platonic and should Christians care?

In his dialogue the Republic, Plato offers a series of analogies and myths that convey four levels at which human beings can perceive, make sense of, and know God and the cosmos. The most famous is the myth of the cave. It begins with the experience of prisoners strapped down at the back of the cave, only they don't realise they are held because it's the only reality they have ever known. They see flickering shadows on the wall in front of them and take them to be real.

It's a metaphor for the first level at which we know things, the empirical level. This is the material level of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling. There's nothing wrong with it. When I took part in the icon retreat at Southwark cathedral last year, one of the loveliest pleasures was handling the egg tempera paints and colours. But if my attempts to write an icon had stopped there, I would have scarcely begun. So too, in general, if we treat the brute stuff of the physical world as the sum total of reality, life won't take us very far.

In truth, no-one stops there. Human beings quite spontaneously interpret and analyse, gather and assess what their senses tell them. I don't just see azure blue outside the window, I see the bright sky. Similarly, with the icon writing. After a day becoming familiar with the paint, we moved onto applying it on a board, and experimented with the imagery produced. When the skilled iconographer sits down to work, the elegant forms of Christ, Mary, angels and saints emerge. The materiality of paint and board are transformed into an object of belief and devotion.

It's Plato's second level of knowledge. In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the moment a few brave prisoners loosen their bonds, peer into the gloom behind them, and see that the flickering shadows they had taken to be reality are the result of puppets dancing in front of a fire. There's more to life than they first assumed. Plato called it the level of belief - living by the convictions we have about things that are fine insofar as they go, only they don't go far enough either.

There is a third level. Think again about the icon. What really matters is not the picture but what the picture conveys. The Greek "eikon" means image or likeness. So it's the tangible manifestation of an intangible reality which the picture transmits or channels. Hence the sense of the numinous or transcendent when one enters an Orthodox church. The sacred space filled with icons becomes a thin place that opens your mind and imagination to a spiritual perception that is actually closer and more immediate than your physicality. The presence enters you like a breath. You step into an awareness of the aliveness of life at the level of soul.

St Paul uses the word "eikon" many times in much the same way, too. Just as we bear an earthy or visible eikon, he tells the Corinthians, so too we bear a heavenly or invisible eikon. In other words, our bodies are not only biological organisms but are breathing mirrors of our ensoulment. It's why our character becomes etched into the lines of our face as we grow old, and why others know who we really are when they see into our eyes.

Plato called this third level, flexible thinking. The seer now is one who is not held back by the literal or concrete but can work with, and live from, the metaphorical and symbolic. It's closer to the truth.

In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the next step that the escaping prisoners take as they realise they are in a cave. They see the mouth of the cave. It emits a uniform, illuminating light. They don't yet see or understand the source of the warm glow, but they certainly now know that shadows and fire don't explain much at all. They stay brave, inch their way towards the opening, and step out. To their astonishment and delight, they see the sun - or at least, they don't see the sun but realise that there is a source of all light that gives life. They can't quite look at the sun. It's blinding.

It's the fourth level of knowledge, the mystical. Plato calls it direct perception or true understanding. It's ineffable, an awareness of reality that is known through and beyond all eikons, perceptions, or words. In the most common Orthodox icon, Christ Pantocrator, this most profound awareness is symbolised by three letters painted into Christ's halo: ο, ω, ν. "ο ων" means "who is". The letters are reminders of the Being of which Christ is the full manifestation; the image of the invisible God. To appreciate the icon at this level is to understand it fully.

It's the goal of the Christian life. Such direct perception is to be united with the Being, with the divine. Union is possible because we can only understand what we can share in, participate with, or are akin to. We understand the material world because we are material as well. Similarly, we understand the immaterial world because we have an immaterial nature too. At the deepest level, the Platonists and indeed Paul risk saying that we can understand and know God insofar as we ourselves manifest the divine, which is to say that we have realised an awareness of the ground of our being and all beings.

It's the mystery of the incarnation, which Plato's fourfold schema unpacks too. First, there is the biological materiality of Jesus the man. Second, there is the historical actuality of his birth and death - the beliefs captured in creeds. Third, there is the theological meaning that is drawn out of these details, from the kenotic emptying Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians, to his notion that we too can become children of God or akin to the divine.

And fourth is the most basic reality of all. The incarnation reveals that in all eternity, the Father "gives birth" to the Son within God, as God. And so also God is born in creation within the human soul, alongside the cosmos as a whole. Hence, Paul writes of creation groaning with birth pangs. It's the fullness of the icon. We see God. We see Christ. We see Jesus. And we see the awesome truth of ourselves.

ImageChrist Pantocrator, the painting in the niche of the wall of the Holy Trinity's monastery, Meteora, Greece

 

Sunday, June 14 2015

Paul on fornication and the Rapture, or in Thessalonica

I'm helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Today we reached Thessalonica…

Reading between the lines of Paul's letters, so as to catch a glimpse of what gripped the first generation of Christians, is always tricky. Never more so, I feel, than with the letters to the Thessalonians.

Though the first epistle is the earliest Christian text in the Bible, it could be thought of as warm but a bit bland. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their example and welcome (incidentally, in marked contrast to the account of his visit to the city in Acts: Luke tells us that a riot led to Paul making a rapid exit in the middle of the night). In the letter, Paul also appeals to the Thessalonians to remember that he speaks with divine not mortal authority, and to recall that he and his companions "worked night and day so as not to be a burden to you".

The letters become more theologically interesting on one issue, though in relation to a subject that's awkward for Christians living two millennia on. Paul teaches about the parousia or Second Coming. He corrects the Thessalonians for worrying that some of the brethren are dying before Christ has returned. Everyone will share in the resurrection, he writes, and be "caught up in the clouds". Outside of American Rapture circles, does anyone believe that now?

But reading between the lines reveals more and, further, helps us relate to such themes. It helps to see Paul not only as a Jew but as an educated Hellenistic Jew. That can cast a different light on things.

For example, the detail about not being a burden has been interpreted by some scholars as a sign of how Paul was influenced by Stoicism. It seems to be the kind of attitude towards hospitality that a Stoic sage would commend, as opposed to, say, a travelling rabbi.

The Stoic teacher prided himself on living an integrated life. His or her knowledge of cosmic and divine matters did not mean that they didn't care about the humdrum. In fact, they abhorred people who were so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use, because accurate self-perception was the crucial first step on the path to deep wisdom. As Socrates had insisted, Know Thyself! Paul too seems to be saying to the Thessalonians, I manifested such an integrated life, and that's important for my authority.

The pastoral content of the letters develops the issue. Paul's moral instructions about not fornicating, living quietly, and minding your own affairs exemplifies what scholars call paraenesis. It's a type of unshowy morality that emerged from Stoicism, and other Hellenistic philosophy schools, and was regarded as exemplifying the veracity of your beliefs to others. Paul makes this kind of model behaviour his own, and frequently commends it to others.

Why might this be of interest? Well, seeing Paul in this light can help with a common difficulty felt in modern liberal circles: his awkward conservatism. Take a particularly tricky example, the passage in Colossians 3 about wives submitting to their husbands and slaves obeying their masters. And now think of it as standard first century exemplary morality. I think that these injunctions would have been taken as self-evident cases of best behaviour at the time. Self-evident cases of best behaviour will inevitably be different now - wives and husbands sharing things, and masters freeing their slaves, say. In other words, such passages shouldn't be read as timeless truths without context, as they are in contemporary debates about "male headship".

Paul's Stoicism can help with understanding his convictions on the Second Coming as well because Stoics too had an eschatology. Many argued that there would be a cosmic conflagration that would bring all things to glorious completion. The good Stoic should wait out the current times, behaving well, and so keep his soul ready for the fiery finale.

This is not at all to say that Paul was a fully signed-up Stoic. His eschatology is distinctive, involving the return of the Lord. But it is to say that such a belief would have resonated with other ideas current at the time, perhaps especially in a Greek city like Thessalonica. As with women obeying their husbands, and slaves their masters, placing Paul in his times - as a pilgrimage can so usefully do - helps us to distinguish the timeless revelation about which he was so passionate from the time-bound assumptions he also made.

 

Saturday, June 13 2015

What did Paul preach in Philippi?

I'm helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself are blogging here. Here's a third post from me from the splendid archeological site of Philippi…

Paul sets foot on European soil for the first time, probably in the winter of 49AD. But what did he find at the port of Neapoli, modern day Kavala? What religious scene greeted him?

It would have been an important question for him too. Paul tells us he tailored his message to connect with his listeners. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. So what word would have struck a chord in Macedonia? The letter to the Philippians, though written years after his first arrival, provides evidence.

It seems his usual strategy was, first, to contact fellow diaspora Jews and/or those who reverenced Judaism, the so-called "god-fearers", who were widespread throughout the Roman empire. They would understand the language of the Christ, the Messiah, even if they rejected it.

When he got to Philippi, just up the road from Neapoli, he found no synagogue but, Acts tells us, he went to a place of prayer by the river. There he met a group of women including Lydia, whose heart opened to what Paul said. She was baptised.

However, Paul was not only interested in engaging fellow Jews. His next encounter in Philippi, according to Acts, was with another woman, only this one had a "spirit of Python". She was probably a prophetess from the Delphic Oracle, which is to say, a significant religious figure. No wonder the city was in uproar after Paul became annoyed with her and quashed her spirit.

It sounds like the story of a new religion casting out the old. But it's more interesting that. Why, for example, did Paul became so annoyed by the prophetess? She was proclaiming correctly that he was from the "Most High God". I suspect the incident reveals another side to Paul's ability to connect and persuade: he himself had spiritual abilities that deeply impressed.

The historian Ramsay MacMullen paints a vivid picture of the pagan milieu into which Paul had landed. "(People's) senses were assaulted by messages directing their attention to religion; shouts and singing in public places to an accompaniment as loud as ancient instruments could sound; applause for highly ornate prose paeans; enactment of scenes from the gods' stories performed in theaters and amphitheaters; the god-possessed swirl of worshippers coming down the street to the noise of rattles and drums."

To make an impression, which he clearly did, Paul had to be able to outclass the tumult with his own displays of supernormal power. It apparently came easily to him. In Acts, we read time and time again of how he healed and exorcised, prophesied and even seemingly caused earthquakes. Paul could channel quite a show. As he told the Corinthians, he did not have to use persuasive words of wisdom. He was a spiritual adept.

But if spectacle was part of what helped Paul connect with the Greeks, there was a further side to his appeal. This was more subtle, and perhaps longer lasting. It was Paul's authority as a mystic, which is to say, he could communicate a profoundly felt experience of the divine.

Mysticism, too, was integral to the ancient religious scene. At Philippi, the grave of Euephenes has been excavated. He was probably an initiate into the cult of the Kabeiroi. The heroon of Euephenes was discovered in tact because it had been incorporated into subsequent Christian buildings.

This respect suggests to me that Paul must have been recognised as the representative of a mystery religion too. There are echoes of this dynamic in the letter to the Philippians as well. Paul writes of having "the same mind as Christ"; of "overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight". It's here we find the mystical hymn of Christ emptying himself and "taking the form of a servant". He also hopes to "know the resurrection and make it his own".

Paul's message must have been rich. He had wisdom that could speak to the Jews; power that could persuade the pagans; and an ability to manifest the mystical side of life. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks in such a way that his arrival still speaks two millennia on.

Image: The mosaic floor of the Octagon church that incorporates the heroon of Euephenes.

 

Wednesday, June 10 2015

What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus?

I'm off on Friday helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself will be blogging here. Here's a second pre-departure post from me…

It's become one of the most famous moments in history. A Damascene conversion is a sudden and complete change in one's beliefs. Blinding lights. Tumbling horses. About turns.

Or was it so sudden? I think the answer to that must be yes and no.

Yes, there was a moment in history that radically changed Paul - though just what happened in that moment is also lost to history. Luke gives us three accounts in Acts that differ amongst themselves. And they differ again from Paul's own markedly brief references to it in his letters.

That speaks to me of the truth of the experience. I suspect that if you had been with Paul on the Damascus Road, it wouldn't have been clear what was going on. It seems that it wasn't entirely clear to him. In the letter to the Galatians, he writes of spending time in Arabia working things through, as it were.

So I suspect it also wasn't so sudden. Think of the time before, when Paul regarded himself as a regular Jew, not one of these new Jews who followed Jesus called Messiah. If the story of him watching the stoning of Stephen is anything to go by, he must have been bubbling with righteous rage, pious hatred, anxious orthodoxy. It was waiting to explode.

The great psychologist of religion, William James, was fascinated by conversion experiences. He understood them as upsurges from places deep within ourselves that may have been gestating for some time. They are precipitative eruptions that re-orientate us around a new axis. "I no longer live but Christ lives in me," Paul told the Galatians after his return from Arabia. What an insight to have gained.

A group of ancient Greek philosophers can help us understand the experience further. They are the Stoics, the most successful of the ancient schools. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. As was the tutor of Nero, Seneca. The Stoics were also very influential in 1st century Judaism: the mystic Philo of Alexandria drew deeply from their insights. And when John wrote the famous introduction to his gospel, "In the beginning was the Logos (Word)", he was utilising Stoic ideas to unpack this most tremendous truth about the cosmos.

Whether or not Paul directly read any of the Stoics is unclear. But Stoicism was in the air. And they argued that the great task in life is to re-orientate yourself into alignment with the Logos. Their understanding of the Logos was crucially different to the emerging Christian revelation, as we'll discover when we meet Paul talking to the philosophers in Athens. But for now, think about the way Stoics understood conversion.

The scholar Troels Engberg-Pedersen proposes a model of Stoic conversion. It begins with the individual dominated by their own perspective on things. They live their life according to their own intuitions, identity and desires. However, they are also vaguely aware that something is not quite right, "Our consciousness of our weakness," as Epictetus the Stoic put it.

That readies the individual for a second unpredictable stage, when they are struck by an authority from outside themselves. They are dislodged. The old axis of perception is rocked, sways, and tumbles. It may well feel like a breakdown or disaster. But it enables something invaluable: the discernment of a different perception of life. It us now known as coming from a new vantage that is rooted elsewhere - in the soul, filled with spirit, offering an energy that is gentle and unquenchable. The Logos is making its presence felt.

This leads to a third stage in which a new way of life gradually emerges. Hence Paul could also write about the centrality of "dying every day". If there was a pivotal moment in his life, there is also the on-going task of re-orientating his life with the truth of that experience. Nothing worthwhile is sudden.

This is what pilgrimages can be like too. There is the sudden thrill of arriving in a thin place like Athens or Delphi; the excitement of breathing the same air and feeling the same sun as Paul; a quiet revelation that surges up from within us, blessed by the Logos.

But the pilgrimage experience must also be woven into our ordinary life. It must become part of who we are, which is to say that we must change - must die - in accordance with it. The joy is that the new life, the new axis can then be known every day.

 

Monday, June 8 2015

What would it be like to meet St Paul?

I'm off on Friday helping lead a pilgrimage through Greece in the footsteps of St Paul. Andrew Nunn and myself will be blogging here. Here's a pre-departure post from me…

What would it have been like to meet Paul as he travelled around Greece? What might he have looked like? Would the encounter have been memorable? We can never know for sure, of course, but speculating is possible. And the hints and suggestions about his appearance and character are surprisingly revealing of the man we seek to follow on pilgrimage.

Luke makes several references to Paul that suggest the writer of Acts likened Paul to a Cynic philosopher. The Cynics were the shock-jocks of the ancient world. They felt that human problems arise from blindly following conventions: you can be free, said their founder Diogenes, if you live like a dog (hence their name, as "cynic" probably comes from the Greek for dog).

When you need a bed, curl up in the sun. When you need some food, nature will provide. Don't worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have worries enough for itself. Actually, Jesus said that, of course - though Jesus too has been likened to the Cynics by some New Testament scholarship.

If it seems a bit farfetched to think that Luke used Cynic sources to imagine Paul, consider this portrait of the ideal philosopher, recorded by his near-contemporary, Epictetus.

The ideal philosopher is unmarried, and recommends the single life, so as not to distract from the "service of God", Epictetus said. He follows his conscience rather than political or religious authority. He is kind-hearted to the extent of taking on the troubles and physical hardships of others. He can expect to be "beaten like an ass", though he must love those who beat him. He is an "enslaved leader", responsible only to God, not the masses. His friends and followers will be equally dedicated to his calling. He will be free, regarding God's will as better than his own. He will be despised and praised, desired and derided, a slave unto death.

Remind you of anyone? This is the man, Paul, whom we follow.

If that speaks of an awkward yet compelling character, what of his actual looks? They too might have been unsettling yet alluring. The iconographic tradition suggests that Paul was thin in the face, had a dark beard, large eyes, a monobrow, bandy legs, and was strong but short of stature. In fact, the name "Paul" may be a pun on the Greek for "short".

According to the scholar Abraham Malherbe, many of these features seem to pick up on another ancient Greek image, that of the hero, Heracles. So what might be the link between Paul and Heracles?

Well, there is a strong association between the hero and Paul's hometown, Tarsus. It was an important place in Asia Minor: the Greek historian, Strabo, said it rivaled Alexandria and Athens in cultural significance. You might imagine that Paul, travelling through Greece, would have played up his links with Tarsus. They might impress, or at least get him a hearing. So too the link with Heracles might have stuck in the remembrance of his appearance.

But there is a deeper association with Heracles. In the myth, Heracles is remembered for his great labours. So too Paul, in Acts and in his own letters. And further, Heracles' labours included visiting the underworld, which is to say that in some sense, Heracles was thought to have conquered death.

Here we get to the heart of Paul's message as he travelled around Greece. His gospel is one of dying and rising, of being buried and reborn. New life, alongside the acceptance of struggle and suffering, is his driving agenda. Might this be the God-orientated man we seek to follow on pilgrimage? He's not for the fainthearted, with his inner authority, tough kindness, arresting features, cultured background, and life-promising message. I, for one, yearn to know more.

 

Thursday, June 4 2015

The Atheist Experiment

We've published the latest discussion between myself and Rupert Sheldrake. They're available as podcasts or on iTunes.

In his book, Atheists: The Origin of the Species, Nick Spencer tells the story of atheism as one of protest and politics, rather than simply as an argument about the existence of God. In this Science Set Free podcast, Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon ask what history can tell us about atheism as a way of life, as an account of being human, and what the future of atheism might bring.

 

Friday, May 15 2015

Silence: A User's Guide

This review of Silence: A User's Guide by Maggie Ross is in the current issue of Third Way Magazine.

Silence is the crucial element in Christian life, argues the solitary and author Maggie Ross in this punchy, timely book. It is vital because the fundamental promise of Christianity cannot be realised without it, namely, new life in Christ. Ross calls this process of transfiguration "the work of silence". The results of it St Paul realised when he declared that he no longer lived but Christ lived in him. It led St Augustine to sense that God was closer to him than he was to himself; Mother Julian to know that all will be well; and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing to advocate the kind of contemplation that "beats away at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love."

A practice of silence can move the individual from living within the anxious strictures of their self-consciousness, to living out of the infinite love of God's deep mind. The tragedy is that silence has almost disappeared from western Christianity. Ross describes this loss, a sorry tale over two millennia of theological and ecclesiastical seduction by political, personal and institutional power. The stance an individual or church must sustain towards the unfolding action of silence goes when, with James and John, individuals place themselves at Jesus's right and left; or when the receptivity of Mary is eclipsed by the busyness of Martha; or perhaps today in the Church of England when the growth demands of intentional evangelism out shout the quiet mission of God - with which, after all, God is engaged regardless of the nervous preoccupations of a struggling established church.

Ross's study is also timely because the need for silence is currently on many non-Christian minds. The intuition that silence tracks the path to life in all its fullness has become a popular movement with the explosion of interest in mindfulness meditation. Or consider the threatening ecological crisis: Ross argues that this is, at root, a result of our civilisation's disconnection from the natural world. It arises because we have learnt to regard creation as a commodity for human exploitation, and have forgotten how to approach it as an environment with a life of its own, which we might behold.

It is a sign of the times that a nascent science of silence is emerging too, as presented in Iain McGilchrist's seminal book, The Master And His Emissary, an important reference point for Ross. The science suggests that human beings have broadly two ways of engaging with the world. The first is characterised by focus and manipulation. It attempts to organise things for its own ends and according to its own lights. It has evolved to help us survive, but if it becomes dominant then it restricts and throttles the life it tries to possess. This, McGilchrist argues, is the current state of the western mindset.

The alternative way of dealing with the world is open and receptive; it delights in surprise and mystery; it embraces the expansive possibilities of paradox, the potential of uncertainty and disturbance. It delights to "move upon silence", to recall W.B. Yeats's lovely phrase. It is necessary to spiritual flourishing because, in theistic terms, it can tolerate human fragility and let God be God. It can see beyond self-concern and hold out for a relationship with the inexhaustible source of all life. A silent practice is the way to come to know this gift because in silence an individual's default way of engaging with the world can, first, be seen and, then, shift from the controlled to the open.

It's a difficult shift to undergo because it also requires confronting the grief, anger, hate, envy, despair, pride that observing one's mind reveals. It's the path through the narrow gate though, paradoxically, it's also to take up the lighter burden that Jesus spoke of too. The great Christian psychologists that Ross discusses - from Evagrius Ponticus to Simone Weil - have undergone and charted the change, though I believe there is also much to be gained by engaging with the insights of contemporary developmental and depth psychology. It seems to me that they offer a tremendous resource of living theory and practice for those serious about the work of silence. This new resource may well have arisen because, as Carl Jung noted, modern churches have a fractured if not dying relationship with the older contemplative wisdom. Perhaps Ross will discuss this in a promised second volume.

Her book is rhetorical as well as scholarly, an eleventh hour plea for the recovery of silence and all that it opens, beholds and enables. And I agree: the situation is serious. Nonetheless, I felt that she is at risk of condemning too fiercely the noisy trajectory of western Christianity. It may be true that some of the desert fathers and mothers declared, "Flee the bishops!" as they made for the wilderness, before the bishops rebranded them "white martyrs" to keep them in the fold. But it seems untrue that the last great theologian and senior ecclesiastic who understood the relationship between speech and silence was the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa. Ross's book has a forward by an obvious counterexample: Rowan Williams.

This is just as well because silence requires much holding and skillful discernment if those undertaking it are not to go astray: the enlightened individuals that can guide us will necessarily emerge from flawed institutions. Plus, McGilchrist's point is that we need both ways of engaging with the world, in right relationship. The challenge today is to find where the flame of silence still flickers amongst Christians, as well as to connect with where it burns more strongly elsewhere.

 

Thursday, May 14 2015

Skeptiko interview on Christianity, Atheism and Rupert Sheldrake

It was a more robust discussion than I anticipated, though maybe what feels like discomforting aggression in England is but a bracing exchange in California. But here's my conversation with the host of the useful Skeptiko podcast, Alex Tsakiris.

 

Wednesday, May 13 2015

Platonic Errors

My annoyance at public intellectuals misunderstanding Plato overcame me and I isolated three common errors for The Idler Magazine, as below.

1. Plato invented secular philosophy.

The first story being told is of a crucial shift in human thought that crystalized in fifth century BC Athens. Before then, in the time of Homer and Hesiod, ancient Greeks had resorted to myths to guide them through the world. Now though, with the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato in particular, a new generation of Greeks developed the capacity to think about the world without referencing their multiple divinities.

Instead they turned to cool, godless reason. Logic helped them derive arguments about what's true. No longer need things be believed because deities said so. Instead, humanity began to build knowledge on the basis of proofs.

This is wrong. It's right that the philosophers deployed new methods to investigate how to live, the nature of the cosmos, the way to rule cities. Those methods included reason and empirical investigation. But it was also a standard assumption amongst the ancients that true knowledge was true because it reflected divine knowledge. Reason and experience are gifts by which we can participate in divine life. Knowing came to be understood as a receptive capacity that reason serves by discerning. Nature came to be experienced as showing itself to us, if we attend to it aright.

Hence Thales, often called the father of philosophy, could exclaim, "All things are full of gods." This is what his wondrous investigations revealed. For Plato, reason was a tool that could lead to divine insight, but if and only if accompanied by myths, reverent invocations, and the hard work of personal transformation.

This is a very good way of doing philosophy, which after all is the desire for a wisdom that often seems beyond human reach. And it has very little to do with contemporary secular philosophy that often seems stranded on a desert island of soulless logic. Plato might, in fact, help restore it to life.

2. Plato opposed the spirit to the body.

The second story is that Plato held the body to be a prison for the soul that, with luck, the soul could flee at death. This meant that he denigrated the body and idealized the soul. He set up a dualism that we still experience in forms such as sexual prohibitions and women's oppression.

If the academics read Plato (which sometimes, honestly, I wonder) they would learn that, for example, Socrates tousles the hair of his youthful follower, Phaedo, on his deathbed. Or they'd spot that Socrates did not just advocate philosopher kings in his dialogue the Republic, but philosopher queens. They are very likely to know that Plato the man probably gained his name because it is a pun on the Greek for "broad", suggesting that before he was a philosopher he had been a wrestler. They will also know that gymnasia were one of Socrates's and Plato's favourite haunts. But they don't take the next step: these are not details from the life of a body-hater.

Plato was actually gripped by something more subtle, more interesting and more valuable. It is the possibility that the body reflects the soul. It's much as we say that someone's character becomes, in time, etched into the lines on their face. Plato proposed that the soul is the form of the body; that the soul is the aliveness of the body.

It's true that he has Socrates wonder whether, after death, the body might come to feel like it has been a prison, such is the liberation that death could bring. But that's just one of several possibilities he considers, as anyone with curiosity would. He never offers a definitive creed. So where did the dualism come from? I don't think it really existed until the seventeenth century, when Descartes proposed his famous cogito, "I think therefore I am." With this formula, it became possible to imagine a thinking part separate from a bodily part. We now live with that legacy. But before then, philosophers had assumed human beings were incarnate: ensouled bodies. If you're against the dualism, which I think is sensible, Plato is a sophisticated ally not enemy number one.

3. Plato argued that goodness trounces God.

The third error that the academics promote is that Plato proved that goodness is more basic than godliness. Or, to put it another way, that the gods have no choice but to be good. This is then developed to suggest that goodness is more important than divinity, which is a short step away from the conclusion that divinity is not important at all. In short, Plato was really a new atheist.

The reference for this line of argument is Plato's dialogue, the Euthyphro. Again, I would suggest that our academics take a second look. Because if you follow the dialogue through, you see that it is one of Plato's aporetic works. It ends inconclusively.

If anything definitive can be concluded from Socrates and Euthyphro's exchange it would be that when human beings claim to know anything for certain about the gods, they are certain to tie themselves in knots. That is a useful reminder for religious and atheistic folk alike. No-one with any seriousness can presume to know what causes gods sleepless nights, least of all feeling trapped into being good because goodness dictates it to them. Put it like this: to say the gods must be good is a bit like saying that grass must be green. It's nonsense. Goodness is implicit in divinity much as greenness is implicit in grass. But there's another more positive insight engaging with the Euthyphro can bring.

We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. She is a good child, someone might say. But the ancients treated goodness as a quality or virtue. It's supremely desirable because it's integral to our flourishing. Goodness tastes good, really good.

Why might that matter to us? Because it might help us come to feel that goodness is a joy, not an injunction; that it lifts us up, not leaves us guilty and wanting; that it is part of becoming all that we might become. Again, in an age starved of trust and vision - of goodness as a self-evident good - Plato can feed us. We should invoke his spirit and refuse the sticks with which academics routinely beat him.

 

Sunday, May 3 2015

The spiritual virtue of laziness

A Sunday Sermon from The Idler Academy

Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life. It's an oft forgotten insight in an age when mindfulness apps set targets for sitting still, and church-going is an obstacle course of activity, from food banks to flower rotas.

Take Rumi, the great spiritual writer of the Sufi tradition. He once told a story. A man left instructions on how to divide his estate. He was a devoted father and so wanted to do the wise thing. He told the town judge: "Whichever of my sons is laziest, give him all the inheritance."

It is a striking will, almost incomprehensible to the modern mind. But the man's sons were not spiritual lightweights. They knew their father was onto something.

So, when his father died, the eldest son told the judge that he was adept at laziness. It had made him patient. He explained how, for example, he could read another man's mind by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, he could watch him for three days and know him intuitively. Impressive, thought the judge: anyone who can wait three days shows promising signs of laziness. But what of the second son?

Laziness had made a different impact upon him. It had made him crafty. He too could understand another by the sound of their voice and, if they refused to speak, the second son would start talking. The other was then bound to reply, and give themself away. Not quite so impressive, thought the judge: craftiness is a common human trait. All you have to do is know the trick. So what of third son?

Laziness had achieved its best with him. The youngest had the gift of presence - of being, not doing, we might say. And what comes with presence? The ability to be receptive. He could sit in front of another and feel what the other drew out of him. With that sense, he could understand anyone. Moreover, he could receive insights from a place beyond joy and grief. The deepest and darkest recesses of the soul were as clear as day to him. He knew the way between voice and presence where information flows.

"The youngest was, obviously, the laziest," Rumi concludes. "He won."

Other spiritual teachers have echoed the value of this key quality. Jesus told his followers that the burden is light. If it feels heavy, hard work, impossible then something has gone wrong. Ease is the key guide.

The Buddha taught "right effort", which in our day invariably means less effort. When your legs are dead, your back is aching, and your mind feels caught up in a storm, it's time to stop meditating. A mindless, joyful chat with a friend will be more spiritually beneficial. But why? Why is it that idleness, laziness, and ease offer the surest path to enlightenment? The quick answer, the gurus tell us, is that our own efforts can accomplish nothing. They key task is not to achieve, but to let go; it's not to be in control, but to release; it's not to live, but in a sense to die.

Then, and only then, by a supreme non-effort of the will - that is so hard in a world orientated around work, status, responsibility - something radically new might be glimpsed. It's a source of life and pleasure on the other side of partying hard. It's a resting place that is also alive. It's an intelligence that does not manically accumulate facts but calmly issues wisdom.

Idleness is a central virtue in the spiritual life.

 

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